U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has weighed in on the 4-H rodeo controversy brewing in South Dakota, which has most of the nation’s 4-H rodeo competitors.

Local 4-H rodeo leaders in Pierre and Fort Pierre have said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national policy on prohibiting 4-H rodeo events being labeled by sex or gender violates federal Title IX laws banning discrimination in educational activities.

It’s a 40-year-old controversy that has heated up recently as national 4-H officials in Washington have ordered 4-H officials in South Dakota to enforce the rule.

Casey Cowan, a long time 4-H rodeo supporter from north of Pierre, says he can’t understand why USDA can’t use the interpretation of Title IX used by the federal Department of Education, allowing girls sports teams and boys sports teams in high schools and colleges across the land.

Now the boss of USDA is siding with South Dakota 4-H rodeo supporters and organizers.

In a letter dated April 1, Perdue told Rep. Kristi Noem, R-SD: “Before 2017 USDA had its own unique version of the Title IX regulations. In 2017, however, USDA enacted a new version of its Title IX regulations that accord with the common rule developed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000.”

Perdue told Noem that it appears national 4-H officials in USDA have been out of step with the federal Department of Education, which he said “is the lead federal agency with respect to Title IX enforcement involving students. . . “

Perdue said USDA and the Education Department are reviewing Title IX policies and it would “not be appropriate for USDA to take action against the traditional structure of South Dakota’s 4-H rodeos while this review is ongoing. 4-H may organize its rodeos in South Dakota as it always has.”

Perdue wrote Noem: “We wish the organizers and young competitors much success in their upcoming rodeo season.”

Noem issued a news release about it late Tuesday, saying that except for action by her, USDA “was moving forward with the elimination of exclusively ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ events in 4-H youth rodeo, against the wishes of many within the rodeo community.”

4-H rodeo is found only in South Dakota and in New Mexico, which has far fewer activities and competitions than South Dakota 4-H, Cowan said.

4-H leaders in Michigan and Oregon also organized 4-H rodeos until a few years ago.

It’s a big deal in South Dakota where rodeo is the state sport: 1,219 young people took part in 35 regional 4-H rodeos last year and 532 of them went on to compete in the state 4-H finals rodeo held in Fort Pierre every August.

Although many 4-H activities, including livestock exhibits in which 4-Hers show their steers, sheep and hogs, include boys and girls in the same ring, the same event, the same prizes, rodeo is different, Cowan says.

It’s more like a “contact sport,” such as football that is exempted from some interpretations of Title IX’s general rule banning discrimination.

In 4-H rodeo in South Dakota, riding bulls and broncs, for example, are called boys events, although girls are allowed to enter if they want to, Cowan says. And some boys have chosen in recent years to compete in barrel racing, or pole-bending or ribbon-roping, which are called girls events.

New Mexico’s 4-H rodeo several years ago dropped any gender distinctions, dividing rodeo events into several divisions.

South Dakota 4-H rodeo began in 1971, a year before the federal Title IX law was even passed, and has been an example of fair play for boys and girls for a half-century, Cowan says.

Noem agreed with Cowan in her news release: “The previous legal opinion was more about political correctness than the rodeo experience for the kids involved,” Noem said. “After months of pressure, the USDA finally listened to those actually involved in the rodeo, hit pause, and allowed South Dakota youth rodeo to continue to operate as it has for decades. I’m grateful to Secretary Perdue for hearing us out and helping me push career bureaucrats to take South Dakota 4-H seriously.”

In November, Noem had written Perdue asking for a review of USDA’s legal opinion on Title IX in 4-H rodeo “as a mother who has had three children participate in the (4-H rodeo) program and volunteered for 16 years. . .”

“Whether it is barrel racing or calf roping, the difference between the male and female competitors can create unfair advantages,” Noem wrote Perdue last fall.

Cowan was reading Perdue’s letter late Tuesday: “We are obviously very happy about with this,” Cowan told the Capital Journal on Tuesday night.

But he wonders why local 4-H rodeo supporters weren’t told about this reported change last year in the way that USDA officials were looking at Title IX compliance.

“Obviously, USDA changed their position at some point and said ‘we are just going to follow what the Department of Education is doing and that is what we said all along.”

“But nobody bothered to tell us.”

Rodeo in South Dakota is not a partisan issue, necessarily, although Noem is running for governor this year. While her main rival might be fellow Republican, Attorney General Marty Jackley, the Democratic contender is legislator Billie Sutton, a former rodeo bronc rider.

Cowan said former U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler of Fort Pierre has been helping local 4-H rodeo supporters with legal advice.

Seiler, a Democrat, is running for state attorney general and has been a wealth of good counsel, Cowan said.

Cowan said he was grateful to Noem “for not only supporting us, but bigger than that, having enough guts to stand up for something she believes in, knowing it might not be popular with everyone.”

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